Frederick Buechner, God’s Handkerchief Part 2: The View From Buechner’s Window

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Note: You can read the first part of Frederick Buechner, God’s Handkerchief by Jason Gray here. Read on for the second part, “The View from Buechner’s Window”.

In his book Wishful Thinking (1973), Frederick Buechner said of the Bible, “If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.”

I suppose you could make a similar case for any great writer, Buechner included: the flyspecks and dust of it are the words on the page, the style of writing, and the articulated ideas themselves—the graffiti scrawled across pages for others to find afterward that, in essence, says, “Kilroy was here.”

On one level, Buechner’s writing was merely the articulation of the world as he saw it, written in the good faith that “the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” (Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, 1982) But on another level, his writing was so much more than the words on the page, beautiful as they were. For me, Frederick Buechner didn’t write books as much as he crafted windows—portals through which the deep mystery of God could call out to the deep mystery of myself. 

More than the words he wrote about what he saw, the enduring gift of Buechner’s writing is that he fostered in me a way of seeing. There is so much beauty I wouldn’t recognize if he hadn’t given me a way to see it: a world of the holy hidden in the profane, the sacred in the shabby, all of it drenched in grace and a joy that against all odds will swallow tragedy in the end. I believe God didn’t want me to miss these things, so he sent Frederick Buechner into my life to give me eyes to see them.

There’s no way I could write a post to do this phenomenon justice, so once again I’ve accepted that anything I write will be both too much and not enough, and I’ve limited myself to just three of the many wonders I’ve seen through Buechner’s window.

1. Doubt as a sacred mechanism for finding truth.

I never got the sense when I read Buechner that he was anxious for me to believe anything. More often than not it felt like he simply offered personal observations for the reader to do with as they pleased. One of the features I love most about his writing is the way he’d make a skeptic’s argument better than they might’ve made it themselves, which, of course, made his faith that much more compelling. 

Consider the way he acknowledges the implausibility of the virgin birth, validating the doubter by meeting them in their skepticism (which is a form of incarnation—breaking into someone’s reality to meet them where they’re at) before suggesting that the immaculate conception is not as preposterous as you might think if considered a certain way:

The earliest of the four gospels makes no reference to the virgin birth, and neither does Paul, who wrote earlier still. On later evidence, however, many Christians have made it an article of faith that it was the Holy Spirit rather than Joseph who got Mary pregnant. If you believe God was somehow in Christ, it shouldn’t make much difference to you how he got there. If you don’t believe, it should make less difference still. In either case, life is complicated enough without confusing theology and gynecology.

In one sense anyway, the doctrine of the virgin birth is demonstrably true. Whereas the villains of history can always be seen as the products of heredity and environment, the saints always seem to arrive under their own steam. Evil evolves. Holiness happens.”

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, 2004)

In full view of academic questions surrounding the virgin birth as a tenet, Buechner puts forth the phenomenon of saintliness as a kind of recurring virgin birth wherever it happens, creating space to consider it at least as a principle. And just like that, he honors skepticism while simultaneously chipping away at it, disarming argumentativeness by finding a slim patch of common ground.

Another example of his sympathy with/honoring of the skeptic is found in his novel, The Return Of Ansel Gibbs, where doubt is offered up as a necessary part of spiritual authenticity:

Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and. . . great laughter.

(Frederick Buechner, The Return Of Ansel Gibbs, 1958)

And here, his most direct affirmation of doubt:

Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, 2004)

In his book The Alphabet Of Grace (1970,) Buechner wrote, “If there’s no room for doubt, there’s no room for me.” Maybe this is why his writing always set a large table with room for everyone, no matter where you found yourself along the spectrum of faith, as though he really believed that, “Whether you call on him or don’t call on him, God will be present with you.” (Frederick Buechner, Now and Then, 1983)

2. The holy work of paying attention

We might be tempted to imagine that the holy things of the world are strictly associated with religion and only come to us via the proper religious channels, presided over by experts in piety. But through Buechner’s eyes, I learned that, while that may be occasionally true (and when it is, it’s more likely in spite of all the religious fuss than because of it), holiness has a mischievous quality to it, showing up in the places I’d least expect. It can also be terribly shy—furtively hiding when I try to look directly at it, best spotted out of the corner of my eye.

Only God is holy, just as only people are human. God’s holiness is God’s Godness. To speak of anything else as holy is to say that it has something of God’s mark upon it. Times, places, things, and people can all be holy, and when they are, they are usually not hard to recognize.

One holy place I know is a workshop attached to a barn. There is a wood-burning stove in it made out of an oil drum. There is a workbench, dark and dented, with shallow, crammed drawers behind one of which a cat lives. There is a girlie calendar on the wall, plus various lengths of chain and rope, shovels and rakes of different sizes and shapes, some worn-out jackets and caps on pegs, an electric clock that doesn’t keep time. On the workbench are two small plug-in radios, both of which have serious things wrong with them. There are several metal boxes full of wrenches and a bench saw. There are a couple of chairs with rungs missing. There is an old yellow bulldozer with its tracks caked with mud parked against one wall. The place smells mainly of engine oil and smoke – both wood smoke and pipe smoke. The windows are small, and even on bright days what light there is comes through mainly in window-sized patches on the floor.

I have no idea why this place is holy, but you can tell it is the moment you set foot in it if you have an eye for that kind of thing. For reasons known only to God, it is one of the places God uses for sending God’s love to the world through.”

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, 2004)

Notice the demureness of glory in this scene from his novel, The Final Beast, when the protagonist prays:

“Please,” he whispered. Still flat on his back, he stretched out his fists as far as they would reach—”Please . . .” then opened them, palms up, and held them there as he watched for something, for the air to cleave, fold back like a tent flap, to let a splendor through…

Two apple branches struck against each other with the limber clack of wood on wood. That was all—a tick-tock rattle of branches… but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach perhaps of splendor.”

(Frederick Buechner, The Final Beast 1965)

Maybe the most poignant instances of the sacred in the mundane show up in his reflection about a day in the life of Jesus:

…When he saw a big crowd approaching, he figured he didn’t have enough steam left to do much for them that day, so he went and climbed into a boat for a few hours’ peace, only to find that the disciples were hot on his heels and wanted to go along too. So he took them. Then he lay down in the stern of the boat with a pillow under his head, Mark says (4:34), and went to sleep.

Matthew leaves out the details about the stern and the pillow presumably because he thought they weren’t important, which of course they’re not, and yet the account would be greatly impoverished without them. There’s so little about Jesus in the Gospels you can actually see.

He didn’t doze off in the bow where the spray would get him and the whitecaps slapped harder. He climbed back into the stern instead. There was a pillow under his head. Maybe somebody put it there for him. Maybe they didn’t think to put it there till after he’d gone to sleep, and then somebody lifted his head a little off the hard deck and slipped it under.

He must have gone out like a light because Mark says the storm didn’t wake him, not even when the waves got so high they started washing in over the sides. They let him sleep on until finally they were so scared they couldn’t stand it any longer and woke him up. They addressed him respectfully enough as Teacher, but what they said was reproachful, petulant almost. “Don’t you see that we’re all drowning?” (Mark 4:38)…

The Roman officer, the sick old lady, the overenthusiastic scribe, the terrified disciples, the lunatic — something of who he was and what he was like and what it was like to be with him filters through each meeting as it comes along, but for some reason it’s the moment in the boat that says most. The way he lay down, bone tired, and fell asleep with the sound of the lapping waves in his ears. The way, when they woke him, he opened his eyes to the howling storm and to all the other howling things that he must have known were in the cards for him and that his nap had been a few moments of vacation from. The helplessness of the disciples and the way he spoke to them. The things he said to the wind and to the sea.

Lamb of God, Rose of Sharon, Prince of Peace — none of the things people have found to call him has ever managed to say it quite right. You can see why when he told people to follow him, they often did, even if they backed out later when they started to catch on to what lay ahead. If you’re religiously inclined, you can see why they went even so far as to call him Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, the Son of God, and call him these things still, some of them. And even if you’re not religiously inclined, you can see why it is you might give your immortal soul, if you thought you had one to give, to have been the one to raise that head a little from the hard deck and slip a pillow under it.”

(Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, 2004)

I’ve read that passage maybe a hundred times, and I still feel the lump in my throat and the tears in my eyes at the thought of Jesus resting his head on that pillow—such a commonplace thing that I might’ve missed if Buechner hadn’t shown me the resplendent glory of it. 

Perhaps it’s this most beloved of Buechner’s quotes that best sums up this hunt for the holy in the mundane:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

(Frederick Buechner, Now and Then, 1983)

3. The broken places of our humanity are where the light shines through

Buechner’s best characters—whether from his novels, theological works, or memoirs—possess a brokenness that allows a light to shine through them, giving us hope that if God works through characters such as these, maybe he can do the same through the likes of me. I think this is true of Buechner himself, most of all, that broken and holy character who is spilled out on every page of his books. Who would’ve guessed it? It turns out the human condition is the precondition necessary for the divine to break in.

Buechner might’ve said it best through Saint Brendan:

Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top he heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn’t leapt forward and caught him. 

“I’m as crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said. 

Gildas with but one leg. Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We was cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees. 

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said. “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

Amen.

Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".


1 Comment

  1. Matt Wheeler

    @mattwheeler

    A beautiful reflection, Jason – thank you for it. This quote is especially striking to me:
    Only God is holy, just as only people are human. God’s holiness is God’s Godness. To speak of anything else as holy is to say that it has something of God’s mark upon it. Times, places, things, and people can all be holy, and when they are, they are usually not hard to recognize.”

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